Feeling small atop The Great Wall

By Jacob Jarvis

Before I headed to the Great Wall, multiple people told me ‘it’s cool, but it’s just a big wall’.

I thought they must be understating its grandeur, but it still meant my expectations weren’t high when I went to tackle the Badaling section of the mighty structure myself. Honestly, I’m glad those I spoke to didn’t appreciate it, as it meant I was all the more overwhelmed.

It’s just a wall, yes, obviously. But no matter how much I explain its vastness, you’ll certainly underestimate it until you actually go and see it. The small stint which I walked across left me completely exhausted. I went to the most popular part, with the least steep walkways and most handrails, and only 2.3 miles of it is walkable.

Now imagine that I, a relatively fit and healthy young man, felt tired from just moving across that. Now imagine it being built, with no modern-day equipment, and that it is in total over 10,000 miles long. That’s something to be appreciated. The magnitude of the work which went in to it is almost confusing.

When you reach the higher points, the views are something else. I was at Badaling the day after a flood, the air still felt heavy, there was the usual smog, and the sun was blocked by clouds and a small pattering of raindrops. And, regardless of those factors, I could still see a daunting expanse of the wall stretching out each way I looked.

The peaks and then descents of the iconic feat of architecture particularly made me appreciate the work which had gone into its construction. Those who designed and built it seem to have realised the gravitas of the job ahead of them, and closely followed the curvature of the ground of the regions it covers. Although something similar built in a more up-to-date style would clearly be an eyesore, it lends itself entirely to its surroundings. Despite its stature, it blends in with the already spectacular expanse of nature around it beautifully.

The perspective it lends to the woodland around it means that mighty trees and colossal branches are left feeling somewhat fragile. This in turn only lends to their appeal, and that of the wall.

Standing on it gave me one of those rare moments which allows you to take note of how little and, in the end, delicate we all are. Despite the thousands of tourists queuing along the walking routes, the Great Wall still manages to remain a tranquil spot. Somewhere that allows you, even if just for the briefest moment, to reflect. And for that, it’s more than just a wall.

China travel diary: Arriving in Beijing

by Jacob Jarvis

The smog, the heat, the traffic, the language barrier, the transport systems – no matter how many travel books you read before you set off to China, nothing will truly prepare you for any of these.

I spent five days in Beijing for my first stop in the East and at first I was pretty appalled by how many people spat all over the street, now I honestly just feel sorry for them. I’ve been out of the capital for two days now and I’m only just losing the hefty smokers cough I developed during my time there.

Before you go to any points of cultural interest, the first sight your met with is the air itself. It’s almost like a permanent layer of brown fog masking the entirety of the city and, whilst you’re there, it’s impossible to avoid. The putrid pollution teamed with temperatures of thirty degrees and upwards makes it tempting to become a stowaway in your hostel, with the cool embrace of air-conditioning and windows to seal out the pollution.

The first truly daunting experience you’ll probably have is simply crossing the road. Just because the light is green, doesn’t mean the cars will actually stop. The taxis almost definitely won’t, nor will the mopeds. My advice, look for someone who seems to know what they’re doing and tail them. After a few near death moments, where you might feel like an extra in The Italian Job, you’ll get used to it.

On day one my flight arrived into the airport at 2:00am. After sleeping on the flight and my body clock feeling completely out of sync, thanks to 19 hours of travel and a layover in Kiev, all I wanted was sleep. Instead my travel companion and I decided to power through and visited Lama Temple.

We stayed at Dragon King Hostel (nice enough, clean, pretty decent bar, slightly pricey for China) which was a few minutes’ walk from Zhanglizhong subway station. The Lama Temple was just one stop away so we decided to walk, which gave us the chance to explore the hutongs, side streets, along the way. These little microcosms all huddle together to create the distinct and vibrant communities in the area. Hundreds of shops vie for your attention and custom, each with its own charms or, politely put, eccentricities. If you want authentic food or something obscure to eat, these are the places to go.

If I learned anything from the first temple I visited it’s this; no matter how many Buddhas you see, there’s always a bigger one. Every room was covered in gold paraphernalia surrounding a giant statue of the Sage in varying forms and sizes. At first I was in awe of those around ten feet high, then there was one round four times as tall, endlessly ascending into the purpose built roof which homed it.

Inside the halls I felt like an intruder, but was welcomed to join in with burning incense and paying respect along with the those there for religious reasons as well. Until I showed myself up for the ignorant Brit I am and held up the wrong number of incense sticks in front of a statue – prompting a startled looking Chinese lady to come to a halt, point at me, and squeal, “three!” I had originally had the correct number, but my friend had taken one, so this unfortunately prompted the ridiculous response of, “my mate nicked one,” and me pointing at him. This wouldn’t have been my most eloquent moment in England, so, as you can imagine, here it went down absolutely abysmally. The woman walked on, and I shuffled off.

Thankfully since then I’ve learned the Mandarin word for sorry. I’m sure I’ll say it plenty more times in the coming month.